Choreographer Nai-Ni Chen seems able to command the forces of nature. Like a shaman casting spells, she summons the delicate patter of raindrops, the crackle of flames and swirling gusts of wind, bringing the elements indoors and trapping them on stage.
Her dancers are dedicated to her, and they held nothing back when the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company opened its 2014-2015 season, on Wednesday, in the Bradley Hall Theatre at Rutgers-Newark. This terrific program, titled “Cross-Currents” and presented by the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, featured a mix of contemporary pieces from Chen’s repertoire, plus a Chinese folk dance solo and an excerpt from traditional Kunque Opera. The dances revealed Chen’s skill at harnessing and directing the flow of energy. Using the body as a conduit, she makes the movement curl and snap, delivering jolts of excitement.
Even in a dainty piece like “Raindrops,” where four women extend their palms to catch the rain, or hop and seem to splash, a feeling of strength held in reserve keeps sentimentality at a distance. “The Way of Five — Fire” is just as sinuous and elegant, but here the action bursts as five dancers wield silver-colored fans like curved blades, slicing and thrusting. Chen creates suspense, too, by contrasting the restraint of a female trio upstage with the abrupt, flashy moves of two men who spar in the foreground. The high-flying standout is Yoosik Kim.
Min Zhou performs the “Peacock Dance,” a souped-up version of an ancient ritual, in which the soloist pinches and splays her fingers to create a bird-like silhouette, while her arms wriggle and flutter as if preening. In “Double Spear Warrior,” Kunque Opera specialist Yao Zhong Zhang twirls a pair of spears so they blur, and he hurls himself through the air, landing softly if improbably in high-platform shoes.
At the outset of “Whirlwind I,” the dancers seem glued in place, tilting and swaying to suggest a tenacious, plodding journey. Individuals begin to drop out of this caravan, however, to form active partnerships like the duet in which Tyler Brown catches Nijawwon Matthews upside down in a lift, and later wraps herself around his powerful body. While the dancers’ vocalizations have a lonely feel to them, “Whirlwind” is ultimately a dance about making connections.
The company will appear again on Oct. 17, at the Aljira gallery in Newark. For information, visit nainichen.org